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Your Guide To Starting A Career In Business Intelligence & The BI Skills You Need

The BI skills you need to start a career in business intelligence

Does data excite you?

Does the idea of finding patterns in large amounts of information make you want to roll up your sleeves and get to work? Do you find computer science and its applications to the business world interesting? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may want to consider a career in Business Intelligence. To do so, you first need to develop some specific BI skills – they are numerous and apply to many industries, which makes a shift easier – and the time has never been better to make such shift.

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Why Shift To A Business Intelligence Career?

Business Intelligence is an interesting field because it has its feet planted firmly in two separate areas:  business strategy and computer science. Let us see the testimony of Sonya Fournier about her job:

It’s Flexible

Business Intelligence is also a very large field, with many different subcategories in which you can work. This can give you a lot of flexibility in your career without having to shift your areas of expertise or skill set entirely.

For example, if you enjoy computer science, programming, and data, but you’re too extroverted to program all day long, you can work in a more human-oriented style of Business Intelligence. This involves a lot more face-to-face human interaction than most programmers would get on the job.

As BI professional Martin at the BI Cortex puts it: “Some people are made to spend long hours writing code…. however, I quickly got really fidgety, longing for some human interaction. There is so much flexibility and variety when doing BI that other IT-related paths seem too bland or streamlined for my liking”.

On the flip side, if you really enjoy diving into the technical side of things, using business intelligence skills you can work on some really interesting problems that will keep you in flow for hours on end.

There’s a Lot of Choice Involved

You can also choose to work with specific types of firms or firms in a specific industry. For example, if you’re passionate about healthcare reform, you can work as a BI professional who specializes in using data and business intelligence software to make hospitals run more smoothly and effectively thanks to healthcare analytics.

Or maybe you really enjoy other aspects of IT, such as being a system administrator. This works great because at many smaller companies you can wear multiple hats. You can be the “self-service BI” person in addition to being the system admin.

Job Openings and Compensation

Let’s get down to the “meat and potatoes” for a second, shall we? One great reason for a career in Business Intelligence is the rosy demand outlook. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for Business Intelligence Analysts is expected to grow by 14% through 2024. This beats projections for all other occupations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also states that in 2015, the annual median salary for BI analysts was $81,320.

Not bad, huh?

However, keep in mind that salary figures and demand for BI professionals are highly dependent on where you live. This is because according to, the vast majority of BI positions are in California, New York, or Texas. Your salaries and the demand for BI skills will be stronger if you live in one of these states.

 Map showing the variation of salaries across the US

Image source:

What Are The Business Intelligence Skills Necessary?

The specific BI skills necessary vary according to whether you want to be more of a back-end or a front-end BI professional. To simplify things, you can think of back-end BI skills as more technical in nature and related to actually building Business Intelligence tools and platforms.

Front-end BI skills are geared more towards presenting and communicating data to others. Regardless of which choice you make, you can always switch directions as your career goes on. You also might do all of these things if you work at a smaller company. However, no matter what path you choose, the following business intelligence skills are necessary.

SQL Programming. SQL (or Structured Query Language) is a programming language that is commonly used in BI. Even if you are more of a front-end BI professional, you’ll need to know SQL and how to use it.

Data Analysis. Fundamentally, BI skills  are about using data to make better decisions. So, you need to be good at examining many different sources of data and then making accurate conclusions about them.

Problem-solving. BI skills aren’t  just about analyzing data. It’s also about creating business strategies and solving real world business problems with that data.

Specific industry knowledge. While some of this can be learned on the job, you need to have at least a surface level understanding of the industry dynamics that you will be working in. Over time, you’ll want to become an expert in your industry, as it will increase your ability to connect data with business problem-solving.

Communication skills. Last but not least, you need to be able to communicate your findings effectively to the other professionals you’ll be working with. To some extent, if you work in back-end Business Intelligence, you won’t need to communicate quite as much. However, if you work in front-end, you’ll be responsible for communicating technical concepts to non-technical people. This requires excellent communication skills.

You can get a start here with a list of the best SQL books that’ll help you bring your skills to the next level.

Exclusive Bonus Content: Want to change path and start a career in BI?
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What Are The First Steps To Getting Started?

If You’re a Student

Students paying attention in class

If you are a student, you have one of the most important advantages on your side: time. That’s especially so if you’re early enough in your undergraduate career to choose your major. Some of the best degrees for those interested in a Business Intelligence carreer include:

  • Management Information Systems
  • Anything in Computer Science
  • Business Degrees

However, if you are about to graduate with a History degree, have no fear. The professional world is filled to the brim with people who are working in areas that have absolutely no relation to what they studied in college. The most important thing you can do is gain experience in the real world.

Gaining Work Experience

One way you could start a career in Business Intelligence is by getting an internship working at a company that has an analytics department. Some of the big-name ones include Facebook, Google, and Linkedin, but there are many more you can find as well. Getting an entry level position at a consulting firm is also an idea: big ones include IBM, Accenture, Deloitte, KPMG, and Ernst and Young.

An another valuable approach is to gain experience directly in a Business Intelligence provider’s offices, as a data scientist or as a data visualization intern for instance. You will be immerged in the core business and have a primary hands-on experience.

Make it clear during your application that you’re interested in Business Intelligence, and that you’re willing to carve out a niche in that area as you work on projects.

If You’re Already In The Workforce

If you’re already in the workforce, you have one advantage that students don’t: experience. And hopefully, some transferable skills.

For example, if you’re already an excellent communicator, project manager, or business strategist, you already possess skills that are crucial in Business Intelligence. Or, if you come from a more IT related background, you have some of the technical savvy that is necessary.

Your biggest first step is going to be finding job positions, examining the skills and qualifications they’re asking for, and then seeing what holes in your skill set you need to address.

That could involve anything from learning SQL to buying some textbooks on data warehouses. If you’d like some resources in this area, we have posts on Business Intelligence books and other Business Intelligence podcasts you can use to start your research.

You’ll Need To Learn

Whether you’re a student or a working professional, you need to have as much knowledge as possible of Business Intelligence, and the specific industry that you want to go in.

However, there can be a lot to learn. The best way to shortcut this process is to go on LinkedIn, pay for some InMail, and ask Business Intelligence professionals that you would like to emulate if you can have lunch or coffee together.

Be aware that they might have a few different job titles. According to Key2Consulting, some common titles include:

  • Big Data Developer
  • Business Intelligence Consultant
  • Database Applications Developer
  • Data Warehouse Developer
  • Data Warehousing Consultant
  • ETL Developer

Then you can ask them very in-depth detailed questions about their day to day tasks and responsibilities, and how you can get involved. You can also do this process by reaching out to your existing network, or asking professors for advice or referrals if you’re a student.

Also – go to meetups about data science. Yes, they exist.

These are going to be your people. And as any truly great recruiter will tell you, raw skills can only take you so far. It’s just as much about who you know as what you know.

You need to be around these communities in order to get connected. Whether one of these friends introduces you to a new job or not immediately isn’t the point. The point is to start building a group of friends that you can talk with about Data Science and Business Intelligence.

Over time, you will undoubtedly find that this network of friends is your greatest career asset.

Exclusive Bonus Content: Want to change path and start a career in BI?
Get your game plan with our free quick-start guide!

A career in Business Intelligence offers the unique opportunity to blend technical skills, business problem-solving skills, and communication skills into one career.

Working in BI also gives you a lot of flexibility in regards to the specific industries you want to work in, and problems that you want to solve: we have seen that restaurants can also benefit fom analytics, or that analytics can help measure employee satisfaction in order to improve it. Combined with an optimistic outlook for job growth and solid compensation, these factors all mix to make BI an attractive choice.

If you want to get started in BI, focus first on developing relationships with industry professionals. They’ll give you the “on the ground” guidance you need to figure out your exact next steps. Take their advice, work on your BI skills, and continue to learn. Don’t be afraid to ask “dumb” questions.

And above all, don’t be afraid to make a career switch if you’re not happy where you are at now.

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